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The Evolution of Ska Music

Updated on July 4, 2012

From Jamaica to Boston and around the World

Ska music has developed from its Jamaican roots in the 1950s and 60s into a worldwide phenomenon that has come in waves of change, incorporating jazz, bop, rock and roll, and punk music as it grew. Here, I've gathered some of the biggest names from those eras, including music videos and an exploration of why the distinctive styles developed along the way.

Because this is such an enormous topic, this lens is still under construction and likely will be constantly changed and improved. I would love feedback on what I've written so far, on where you draw lines between the various eras of ska music, and which bands you like the most (or the least). There's a guest book at the bottom of the page where you're more than welcome to add your thoughts.

Jamaican Ska: The Reggae-Infused Roots

When American Bop Met Jamaican Mento, Something Special Was Born

As Jamaica was being released from British rule after World War II, American music was swinging away from the Big Band jazz sound and turning to smaller combos playing bop. Local bands in Jamaica were playing mento and more traditional calypso, but began to incorporate the horns and beats from bop and jazz into what they were already doing. Such cross-fertilization continued for decades, leading to a fusion of several musical styles and the development of ska music.

Rosco Gordon often gets credit for "creating" ska, but he drew upon the prevailing music trends, including the signature afterbeat sound that distinguishes ska from most popular music. The sound grew and became a part of the Rude Boy movement fostered by poverty and race issues growing in Jamaica in the early 1960s. (For an excellent discussion of this, check Raj Records' History of Ska page.) As these pressures peaked in the mid-sixties, ska evolved into Rocksteady and then into reggae. The ska musical movement was far from over, however.

Some names of note: Prince Buster (of course), Duke Reid, The Heptones, Owen Grey, The Skatalites, The Overtakers, early Derrick Morgan, and the Matador Allstars.

Videos for Original Jamaican Ska Music

The first video is a bit of a sampler, but it's got several great songs and examples of skanking. The second is simply a cleaner recording of the first song, Jamaica Ska, from Desmon Dekker. Technically, this was recorded with The Specials, who fit more in the two-tone category below, but it's a standard in the ska genre.

The third from The Ethiopians is another classic, and one that's more representative of the original Jamaican ska sound. I've included a couple of Prince Buster tracks, because they're so great and his sound was so influential on the two-tone ska movement. I threw in Simmer Down in part because it shows the blurred line between reggae and ska (this one is Bob Marley with The Skatalites backing) and in part because there's a great third-wave cover that I'll include further down this page.

Two-Tone Ska: Breaking Racial and Musical Barriers

Black and white clothes, black and white bands, and a colorful sound.

The Two-Tone Ska scene endured from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, with a reputation for violence and a lasting influence on the world of music, much like punk and Jamaican ska themselves. As the sound of Jamaican ska spread, particularly to Great Britain, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, proto-punk bands like The Clash picked up the sound and incorporated it into their style of own rock and roll.

The seventies were a time of race riots and upheaval in both the US and the UK, and the two-tone ska was in-your-face about including members of all races in their bands. The black and white clothing that two-tone ska bands and fans wore symbolized their dismissal of racism and division, at least in the name of music. Women became integral members of two-tone ska bands as well, most notably with The Selector. Two-tone bands covered and re-imagined a lot of original Jamaican ska hits, which most listeners didn't realize were not original songs. Some of the original performers of those songs, like Derrick Morgan, crossed the ocean to lend his voice and expertise to these bands as well.

The two-tone period picked up and expanded the ska pun tendencies that riddle the genre. Both band and song names work the word ska into as many places as possible, like The Ska-Dows and their Ska'd for Life, a play on "scarred for life", included in the videos below. The Third Wave and Ska Punk movements haven't shirked their punning duties, either, and the trend remains alive and well today.

Some names of note: The Specials, The Selector, Madness, The Beat (The English Beat in the US), Westbound Train, Ska City Rockers

Two-Tone Ska Music Videos

I've started with The Specials, and their iconic A Message to You, Rudie and The Clash's Rudie Can't Fail, both directed to the Rude Boys rather than a particular person named Rudy. I couldn't leave out The Beat, so I've included a live version of Hands Off, She's Mine from 1980. Westbound Train kept close to the original Jamaican ska sound, edging into reggae and generally remaining faithful to their direct influences. I threw in Bad Manners' My Girl Lollipop, to show that two-tone wasn't all about race and politics - it was also about fun.

The Rude Boys came along in the late 1980s and chronologically don't really fit either the Two-Tone or Third Wave Ska categories. I've included them in this set because they have a more two-tone sound (and I picked their version of Gershwin's Summertime because it's a great instrumental and one of my favorite songs).

Get a Taste of the Two-Tone Sound - Try This Compilation for a Thorough Introduction

The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past
The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past

I couldn't find a decent sampler that was available in mp3 format, so I'm add this one here as a great way for you to get a taste of some of the best of the two-tone ska era (without hunting down fifteen relatively-obscure albums from which to cull a few great songs).

 

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Which "Wave" of Ska Do You Enjoy Most?

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Third-Wave Ska: Horns in Plaid

Moving from Jamaican Roots to a Global Sound

If two-tone ska was all about black and white, third-wave ska brought technicolor to the music. Plaid suits became a hallmark for ska bands in the 1990s (as you can see from this great shot of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones). In the 80s, punk and New Wave absorbed ska music as part of a larger "British invasion" of the US. Band like Fishbone and The Toasters carried on the ska back-beat and horn sections until the third wave took hold in the 90s.

The later you get in time, the harder it is to draw a line between third-wave ska and ska punk, which moves farther and farther from the back-beat sound of Jamaican ska (and often from the political base of the two-tone era). Big D and the Kids Table and Reel Big Fish, for instance, keep the second-and-fourth-beat emphasis while generally singing songs written more for humor and shock value than for influencing the opinions of others. Others, like Skankin' Pickle and The Aquabats, managed to keep their music fun and socially relevant at the same time.

Some names of note: The Aquabats, Suburban Legends, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Pietasters, and Big D and the Kids Table

Third-Wave Videos - Ska Moves into the New Millennium

As promised, I've started this set with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and their cover of Simmer Down. I tossed in a little Los Rude Boys, as well, to show that the English-speaking world doesn't hasn't cornered the ska market.

Sample Jamaican and Third-Wave Ska - Get a Taste of the Roots and the Results

If you choose only one compilation album for each of these two ska varieties, I'd recommend "The Real Jamaica" and "Oi! Skamilation Volume 1" as the best representatives of their respective sub-genres. Because the two-tone era was short-lived and quite specialized, it hasn't garnered as much attention (and thus as many sampler albums). Ive added a single two-tone album below because I couldn't find a good one that was available in mp3 format.

Ska Punk: Afterbeat, Horns, and Mosh Pits

Along the way, bands incorporating the ska-based horn sections started moving away from the typical ska back-beat and toward a more punk attitude and sound. There's more to come, for this section. I apologize that it's not quite ready for you, but please check back as there's more to come.

Names of note: Streetlight Manifesto, Mephiskapheles, Sublime, Voodoo Glow Skulls,

Ska Punk Music Videos - A Little Harder, a Little Raunchier

I wish there were a cleaner version of Mephiskapheles' Eskamo to share, but this was the only one I could find. It's a great demonstration of ska punning at one of the band's earliest performances (before they became more metal than ska).

The Streetlight Manifesto song comes from their latest album.

For in-depth histories of ska, you can check many on-line sources. I found Ska History from Arrayed Roots Media and Ska for the Uninitiated to be the best, but you can find good articles at About.com and, of course, Wikipedia.

Since this page draws together the songs as much as the words, please share your favorite ska songs and bands. When did you first hear ska? Do you have quibbles about where I've drawn the lines between two-tone, third-wave, and ska punk? What's on your mind?

Share Your Ska Memories and Favorites - Are you a third-wave fan, a two-tone hipster, or do you love Jamaican ska?

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      addisonagnote 6 years ago

      Great lens mate! I am in a SKA band here in the Philippines! You can check our music page: http://soundclick.com/stolenshots Cheers and happy skankin'!

    • whoisbid lm profile image

      whoisbid lm 6 years ago

      thanks for the lens !

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      Krakt 6 years ago

      Big fan of this music style very unique

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      zaptrollwen 6 years ago

      My Dad and Stepmum got me into Ska a few years ago! I think it's brilliant, it may be one of the best music genres ever!

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      Sherry Venegas 6 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Speaking of Ska, I have enjoyed Ska since the late 90's when a rather big wave of it hit SoCal. My teenage kids were into it, I would think it was the third Wave, Save Ferris, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and that's all I can remember as far as names. The reason I am here is I saw the Aquabats and the Voodoo Glow Skulls last Friday. I will be making a lens about it.

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      jk_nzd 7 years ago

      Check out this local ska band - "The Managers"

    • lorinyc profile image

      lorinyc 7 years ago

      Nice job! I love ska music but had always wondered about the history.

    • Glorymiller profile image

      Glory Miller 7 years ago from USA

      Very informative lens. great work.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      a

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      does anyone know where the imitation of trains in ska-music comes from. Often songs have names like train to skaville or ska train. I can't find what the connection is?

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      mvzik 8 years ago

      Nice lens dude..

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 8 years ago

      Nice work. I will have to share this lens with my husband. He loves this kind of music.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 8 years ago from USA

      Fantastic work on this. Love ska.